Backpacking and Hiking

Backpacker in a mountain valley

NPS/Josh Spice

Traveling through the park on foot affords opportunities of exploration and discovery. Mountain ridges and passes reveal splendid vistas and can take you to the most remote and least traveled areas of the Park and Preserve.

Experienced hikers in the Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve consider six miles a good day's travel. There are no established trails, and the dense vegetation, tussocks, boggy ground and frequent stream and river crossings significantly slow your progress. You will find easiest walking above the tree line or in the streambeds, if the water level is low. There are so many rivers in this area that you are likely to have to cross one or more during your trip. The water levels fluctuate continuously due to weather conditions, but the highest levels are generally in the spring during the run-off.

Topographic maps are essential in planning your course of travel. Carry your maps and a good compass (and GPS unit if you have access to one) with you in the field.

Group size limit is 10 people, to minimize impacts to the environment. There are no official trails in Gates of the Arctic, but there are countless 'game trails' established by animals. When feasible, use game trails as much as possible, not only for minimizing your impacts on the vegetation, but also for ease of travel. When hiking where no game trails exist, walk in a fan formation, rather than a single file straight line, to avoid creating social trails. Trekking poles are very useful on the uneven and tussock-covered terrain.

Section of a topographic map showing the Gates of the Arctic, Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, above the Koyukuk River

Detailed route planning is not addressed on this website, because Congress set this land aside as a trail-less wilderness area, specifically so that each visitor can find their own experience here. The park does not provide route planning for several other reasons: Due to the fragile nature of the arctic groundcover, repeated use of a route tends to impact it very quickly, and it can take a long time to recover. Also, we cannot effectively evaluate the skill-level of our visitors, and the fluctuating conditions of the area will have a great effect on the route chosen.

Air taxi operators should also be consulted before finalizing a route, since they have specific places that they can pick up and drop off people and gear.

It is recommended that visitors have at least one alternate route planned. In the event of bad weather, high or low water, or smoke from wildfires, visitors have a better chance having an enjoyable trip if there is some flexibility built into their itinerary.

For visitors who are not comfortable looking at a topo map and devising a route, there are several guides and outfitters who take visitors into the park. A complete list of guides, outfitters, and air taxis is available on our website.

A backpacker in a mountain valley
Common backpacking conditions and scenery in Gates of the Arctic

NPS/Josh Spice

Last updated: November 18, 2022

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